A lot of press is given to the horrible inequalities of men and women in the Victorian era and how restricted and controlled women were in the 19th century. The first thing that springs to mind when we think about women in the Victorian era is that women were property, legally owned by their husbands (who were allowed to beat them with no consequences), unable to vote or maintain ownership of the property they had before marriage, who were even worse off if they remained unmarried, and who were, in the end, nothing more than slaves of the men in their lives.
I’ve always had a problem with this view of things. Yes, it’s true on paper. Legally, women in the 19th century had very few individual rights. No property, no vote, no recourse to divorce if they ended up with a dud, and no chance at all of maintaining custody of their children if there was a split. Those things are all true. And they sucked! But people knew they sucked. That’s why women’s rights became an increasingly huge issue throughout the century, why the various suffragette movements exploded in voice and popularity, and why the laws were changed.
That’s right, the laws were changed throughout the 19th century. Earlier than you might have thought too. In England, The Custody of Infants Act of 1839 gave women the right to maintain custody of their children if they were of unblemished character. In 1857 a law was passed stating that violence was a cause for divorce. The Matrimonial Causes Act, which was already in place, was amended in 1878 to allow women to leave bad marriages and keep their children and receive spousal and child support! The Married Women’s Property Act of 1884 stated that women were not property of their husbands and were individuals in their own right. Reforms were happening all the time. These reforms wouldn’t be happening if a large number of men as well as women didn’t recognize the basic facts of equality and justice for women.
Granted, there were other, horribly sexist and awful laws enacted too, like the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s. These acts submitted women to involuntary genital examination if they were suspected of having a venereal disease. They were brutal, unfair, and cruel … and immediately people protested them and sought to have the laws repealed. Which they were in the early 1880s.
But in general women were encouraged to be in the home at all times, their whole worlds revolving around making the happiest life possible for their husbands, right? Well, I say yes, that’s true, with some reservation. That was the ideal—one might even say the fashion—of the time: the pleasant, agreeable, ever-loving, hard-working Victorian wife who dedicated herself to her family at the expense of her own wants and needs. Again, I have two massive reservations about this image. First, if you had a good relationship based on mutual love and respect, wouldn’t this be the goal of both husband and wife? Second, the actual history of the time period is full of examples that either contradict this or shed a different light on it.
What about women like Ada Lovelace, the first female computer programmer in the first half of the 19th century? Or Marie Curie, who shot to scientific prominence at the end of the 19th century and won a Nobel Prize for the work she did with her husband in 1903? Or Isabella Bird, who followed her doctor’s advice to travel abroad in the 1870s (at age 42, mind you) and traveled the world, writing memoirs and *gasp* riding astride! Or Florence Nightingale, who invented modern nursing and served through the heart of the 19th century. Oh, and Queen Victoria. ‘Nuff said!
Those images we have of staid, confined Victorian ladies begin to crumble especially in the last quarter of the 19th century. By that time physical activity was seen as necessary to keep women healthy and sharp. The brief—and rather absurd—concern that women should not ride bicycles because doing so would give them orgasms, thus leading to an oversexed female population was dismissed, and suddenly women had greater mobility. More and more institutions of higher learning were granting degrees to women throughout the 19th century and women were becoming doctors, politicians, and scientists, as well as being teachers, artists, and writers, as they had been for decades. The means and the societal acceptance for women getting out of the home and leading public lives without condemnation was expanding as fast and broadly as all of the scientific and technological advances of the time. Although the ideal of womanhood continued to be that charming, docile, domestic angel, the reality behind the advertisement was shifting.
All right, wait a minute. So much of this focus is on women, how they should deport themselves and what they should do. The vast majority of articles and resources you come up with when you do an online search for “Victorian marriage” are about the strictures on women, contemporary advice on how they should deport themselves, or horror stories of abuse at the hands of their husbands and their deplorable lack of legal rights. But what about those husbands? Didn’t anyone think of them back in the Victorian era and give them advice?
Of course they did. But the plethora of contemporary manuals and advice to husbands of the Victorian era isn’t as sensational or newsworthy as domestic abuse and loss of liberty. In fact, it contradicts the much more “reality TV-worthy” hoopla of the situation of Victorian women.
One great contemporary tome of advice I found urges the Victorian husband to be sensitive and care for his wife. He should seek her advice in his business matters because she might have a unique insight. He should never interfere with the running of the home, because that is his wife’s domain and he has no business meddling in it. He should do his utmost to keep her happy, to give her a generous allowance, to show her affection and listen to her concerns, even if he thinks they are important. He should take care of her and cherish her, and he should remember, as the booklet advises him, that he has been entrusted with someone’s precious daughter. His is a world of responsibility.
The worst you could argue is that that’s a tad condescending, but it’s a far cry from the wife-beating tyrant that a lot of Victorian law would have you believe was the norm for every woman, eh? And that’s my point. The sensational stories get the coverage. Men are not all jerks by nature. The Victorian era is packed full of beautiful love stories of husbands and wives who were devoted to each other, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John and Abigail Adams (for those including Americans and a slightly earlier timeframe in the discussion, because they were awesome together!), and, of course, the ultimate Victorian power couple, Victorian and Albert.
And of course you have to think about the reality of 21st century marriages too, where spousal abuse and infidelity certainly exists, where incomes are not necessarily equal, where one party could lose everything in a divorce if the other has a good lawyer, and where children can spend more time in daycare than in the home. It’s also interesting to stop and think about what the stereotypical image for women in the 21st century has become. No, we’re not all expected to be charming, docile, homebodies, but I do think the image we’re projected to be is overtly sexy but professionally capable soccer moms who hold everything together with the force of our wills and still satisfy our own and our man’s sexual needs. Who achieves that? Who is faulted if we don’t achieve it? The same litmus test applies to the 19th century female ideal, if you ask me.
But that’s a post for a different day….